Album Review: Charli XCX, ‘BRAT’

    In an era of perfectly manicured and evolving pop stars, Charli XCX is honest, reactive, and conflicted. Her musical identity is seen as continuously ping-ponging between extremes: a pop nostalgist and the face of the genre’s avant-garde, perenially on the cusp of or redefining stardom yet clearly more comfortable with just being an It Girl, the kind she assembled for her ‘360’ music video, which featured Rachel Sennott, Julia Fox, Chloë Sevigny, and Alex Consani, among others. She’s looking back but tapped into the future. Critical acclaim and commercial success is a scale she toys with on each release, which always seems to jar in response to the previous one. Her 2022 album CRASH was her first to reach the Billboard top 10 and top the UK Albums Chart; if the pattern is correct, BRAT should find her catering to her niche, and in some ways, it fits the bill. If mainstream sensibilities have to immediately be balanced out by chaotic ones, it’s her turn to “be a mess and play the role,” as she puts it on ‘I might say something stupid’.

    Yet Charli’s pop vision is never as straightforward as it seems. This is someone who recently said, in a tone the interviewer identified as an “irony-rich drawl,” that she’s “into this idea of lying all the time. Being really truthful, but also lying.” Initially, the rollout for BRAT did hint at a rather single-minded focus: returning to the singer’s club roots with help from close collaborators well-versed in its language, namely A.G. Cook and EasyFun. In a live setting, CRASH’s mainstream flirtations also meant embracing her previous eras, whereas BRAT zeroes in on the present and is only interested in recontextualizing old hits that can slot into her set, the word “PARTY” looming behind her. But while it may be a party record, a club record even, Charli treats these spaces with the same nuance afforded by the singer that’s said to be the subject of ‘Girl, so confusing’. The dark corners of the club are also of the mind, she realizes, and what often springs up, more overtly and bluntly recorded than ever before, is her relationship to fame: “I used to never think about Billboard/ But now I’ve started thinking again/ Wondering about whether I deserve commercial success,” she sings on ‘Rewind’.

    It’s perhaps too easy for an artist with Charli’s self-awareness to wink at her place in the pop landscape, gamified as it is. But none of the references on BRAT totally scan as such; even if they become cause for speculation, Charli focuses on the emotion, not the person or the world they belong in. At times, that emotion is one of ambivalence, like in ‘Girl, so confusing’, which her dry monotone doesn’t obscure so much as amplify. When she pays tribute to her late mentor SOPHIE on ‘So I’, it’s in part to humanize her and explore feelings of grief, of being intimated by someone’s talent and regretfully holding them at a distance. As in the past, bravado and nervousness go hand in hand. “Why I can’t even grit my teeth and lie?/ I feel all these feelings I can’t control,” she sings, somewhat ironically, over stabbing and gleaming synths on ‘Sympathy is a knife’. Yet she’s cannier than ever when it comes to twisting and playing with them, especially in the sequencing. Just notice how the weight of the first person shifts in an incredible run of songs: so uncertain in ‘I might say something stupid’, where I is the first word of a sentence that’s never completed before cutting to the euphoric anticipation of ‘Talk Talk’, and then the self-possessed declarations of ‘Von dutch’: “It’s so obvious I’m your number one.”

    It’s this kind of controlled volatility that BRAT excels at better than anything Charli XCX has released in the past. Like the singles suggested, it’s full of delirious fun and ego, but it’s also already secured a spot, in many fans’ hearts, as her best record thanks to its vulnerability – a quality she leans on, unlike even some of her collaborators, without veering into the trap of “confessional pop.” This was true of how i’m feeling now, of course, but another thing that separates these two records – apart from the insecurities being not so tied to (but rather in tandem with) a romantic relationship, plus the whole lockdown thing – is how it drags us slightly out of the present, out the club, and into the present participle (how i’ve been feeling) and future conditionals: What might happen if I choose a different path? This is the question she poses on the intimate ‘I think about it all the time’, where a visit to a friend leaves her pondering about motherhood. The identity of the friend is the last thing anyone could possibly care about; what matters is how the thoughts could transform her world, musically and otherwise. “My career feels so small in the existential scheme of it all,” she confesses, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it way. It’s not just the world of pop stars that can feel small and alienating, of course. We’re just lucky to catch a glimpse of it all.

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    In an era of perfectly manicured and evolving pop stars, Charli XCX is honest, reactive, and conflicted. Her musical identity is seen as continuously ping-ponging between extremes: a pop nostalgist and the face of the genre’s avant-garde, perenially on the cusp of or redefining...Album Review: Charli XCX, 'BRAT'